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Estate planning and asset valuation in the digital age

The estate planning and management process has been complicated in recent years by the increased importance of online identities and digital lives. Individuals in Wisconsin may want to keep certain factors in mind when developing an estate plan to cover not only real and personal property but digital property as well.

Typically, when a person dies, a fiduciary is recognized by the court and given the capacity to act on behalf of the deceased and his or her estate. In the past, the fiduciary would enter the home of the decedent in search of important documents and records. As part of that process, the fiduciary would also find things like letters and journals. The law is clear that the fiduciary has a duty to act in the best interests of the decedent.

Times have changed with the increase in digital documents. A survey released by digital security company McAfee in 2013 indicated that people value their digital assets, on average, at $35,000. An individual's personal memories stored in digital form, such as photos stored in the cloud, were valued at approximately $17,000 according to the survey. Accessing these assets can be difficult, however, for fiduciaries acting today. It often involves gaining access to the decedent's personal computer or online accounts, which requires usernames and passwords. Meanwhile, federal and state laws prevent unauthorized access to such things.

The terms of service agreements required by many companies prohibit accessing a person's account even with his or her permission. Individuals may want to think about who should have access to their accounts and personal computers and under what circumstances. An attorney with experience in estate planning may be able to help by drafting documents to cover the administration of digital assets. An attorney might provide advice regarding how to choose a fiduciary or how to value and organize digital assets.

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